Q: I have ordinary garden shrubs like boxwoods, azaleas and hollies. What can I safely prune now before growth starts?
A: This year has been very strange for the plants since cold patches have alternated with warm temperatures all winter. You are correct to get ahead with pruning as buds swell and before growth has emerged and hardened.
Most homes have hollies and boxwoods as their evergreen plantings. Hhollies can be pruned now because they will produce new growth that will quickly cover unsightly pruning cuts. Hollies can be trimmed gently at the branch tips to produce a fuller branching structure. Hollies can be pruned hard, back to bare wood, to severely alter their size or shape. They will sprout out new growth from those barren branches.
Your plants should be healthy and vigorous to withstand hard pruning. Sickly plants should be nursed back to health with gentle pruning before severely pruning them.
Remember to shape hedge hollies with the top pruned back so that sunlight can reach the lower areas. This will avoid the bare branch bottom look; angle the sides so the top is narrower than the bottom.
Boxwoods appreciate a gentle pruning to let air and sunlight into the inside of the plant. This creates a full dense shrub. You can prune them back hard, but it will take several years before they achieve a full shape again.
Azaleas should not be pruned before they flower or you will lose your spring show. Prune your azaleas for light and shape immediately after the bloom season is over. They will have all summer to produce buds for next year's show.
Tender new foliage is the favorite food of lots of insects, so check plants for damage as soon as leaves emerge. Treat for problems early to keep your shrubs healthy.
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